In Bill Maher's new documentary, "Religulous," the film's protagonist--Maher himself--feels the same way about the film's subject matter at the beginning as at the end: In other words, he thinks religion is a big crock of spit. You know irreverence is the order of the day when Maher, reacting to a smooth-talking black preacher's boast that he got a great deal on his $2,000 suits, drolly observes, "I find it interesting that you're a Christian, you used to be a Muslim but you buy all your clothes like a Jew."
"Religulous" doesn't open until Oct. 3, but after seeing the movie I couldn't wait to grill Maher about how he managed to get so many deeply religious figures to actually talk to him, since it's obvious to anyone whose ever watched Maher's act (on "Politically Incorrect" or HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" or in a comedy club) that he wasn't much of a believer. In many ways, the film is a comic bookend to Sam Harris' "The End of Faith," a humorless best seller that views religion as a bastion of superstition and moral hypocrisy. Although Maher embraces Harris' belief that religion is a destructive force that has brought great pain and suffering into the world--at one point he calls it a neurological disorder--Maher is always searching for the humor in every situation. A longtime acolyte of George Carlin, when Maher confronts a religious zealot or hustler, he prefers mocking over scolding.
Rolling his eyes, often full of derision, Maher gets in his licks with everyone, from a guy playing Jesus at a Holy Land theme park in Orlando to Muslims at a gay bar in Amsterdam to a rabbi who advocates the dissolution of Israel (he wears a card with the slogan "A Jew Not a Zionist"). As everything from "The Gong Show" to "Borat" has proved, real people and situations are often undeniably funnier than anything scripted by the best comic minds. In Holland, Maher is in the midst of questioning a somber Muslim cleric when he's interrupted by the cleric's cellphone, whose ring tone is Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."